When it comes to social media, I don’t like to set up shop for too long. I’ve got to ramble.
Back in 2004, I abandoned Friendster for MySpace without even posting a goodbye. And by the time MySpace got too needy and spammy, I’d already moved half my stuff over to Facebook. If you told me then that we’d still be in a committed long-term relationship seven years later, I’d have lol’d in your face.
But here we are: me and Facebook, still together after all of these years — though more and more, I’m unsure why. With all of its mind games and inanities, its passive-aggressive algorithmic antics, my feed routinely overwhelms my appetite.
It’s not for lack of trying that I haven’t quite moved on. I’ve maintained ongoing affairs with Twitter and Instagram, indulged in dalliances with Vine and Pinterest — at particularly low points I’ve even shown up on Google+’s doorstep. Each of the alternatives offered something more specialized — boutiques to Facebook’s big-box — but none of them could compel me to cut ties completely. (In fact, some of them just seemed to be using me to hook up with Facebook.)
I’m not alone in my relationship troubles. An estimated 11 million high-school and college-age users have fled the site since 2011. A recent study of Facebook users found nearly half had mulled quitting the site altogether (provided they could figure out how). And a group of Facebookers who had flown the coop cited concerns ranging from “negative aspects of online friends” to Facebook’s use of their personal data to their own perceived addiction to the site. Anecdotally, my friends can’t stand Facebook; we talk about it on Facebook all the time.
All of which brings me to Snapchat, with whom I’ve been having something of a crazy summer. (Ramble on!) Just to be clear, I don’t mean sexting, which has been mistaken for the self-destructing-message service’s raison d’etre (despite studies showing sexters’ preference for SMS, as well as for cheeky photos that stick around).
Though it launched back in 2011, Snapchat has freshly baffled the masses by riding into the mainstream atop some big numbers. The most recent round of financing is expected to bring the as-yet-revenueless Snapchat’s valuation to $10 billion. CEO Evan Spiegel says that over 400 million “snaps” (the catch-all term for the photos and video clips that vanish after a designated span of seconds) are shared each day — surpassing both Facebook and Instagram. And though Snapchat doesn’t release numbers, educated guessers have postulated that Snapchat serves upward of 100 million active monthly users — think Facebook in 2008, a mere four years before that number hit 1 billion.
And much like Facebook at that time, those 100 million early adopters are young. One study reports that 77 percent of US college students use Snapchat at least once a day.
That last stat is behind one of the reasons that Snapchat has proven such a hard sell to my app-weary fellow Gen-Xers (and completely inscrutable to boomers), and an increasingly present tool among colleges, museums, and other institutions seeking to connect with younger audiences. We’ve been on social media long enough to witness a generational shift in the essential user desires and expectations it serves. Snapchat is the product of that shift.
For users of a certain age whose social media has always played off of our old-fashioned photo-hoarding, music-storing, memory-treasuring attachments to objecthood and possession, the essential ephemerality of Snapchat might seem too flaky for a commitment. But how can I put this lightly? It’s not Snapchat; it’s you.
When I subtract all of the things that routinely raise my hackles on Facebook — the incessant promotional creep, the vortices of public bickering, the gratingly passive activism, the mess of unsorted news and clickbait, the bloating it has caused to our notions of friendship, and the precision-crafted identities it compels us to enhance and archive — I’m left with a small handful of functions that resembles something a lot like Snapchat, which presents as a clean, simple list of contacts assembled from my bank of stored phone numbers (a degree of intimacy that cuts way down on Internet acquaintance overload).
For the selfie-inclined, text-happy, institutionally detached, mobile-in-every-sense generation behind me, Snapchat makes perfect sense as a social platform. It’s fast and uncluttered (the app opens direct to the camera screen), it indulges creative customization (you can filter, caption, and doodle on snaps before sending), and can easily toggle between intimate engagement and micro-broadcasting (snaps can be sent to any number of friends at once, or posted for all to see in “story” compilations that have 24-hour lifespans).
Since nothing lasts on Snapchat (unless you take a screenshot, in which case the app rats you out to whomever you’re chatting with), the vibe is freer, and the experience centers on hereness and nowness. (Indeed, its recently implemented video chat function is called “Here,” and comes off less like a sit-down FaceTime session or Hangout and more like a visual walkie-talkie.)
In the few months I’ve spent exchanging snaps with those friends I’ve badgered into joining, I’ve reconnected with people who I may only have left a “Happy Birthday” for once a year on Facebook, I’ve enjoyed closer looks at events ranging from Fashion Week to football games (through the app’s publicly sourced “Our Story” feature), and I’ve become very good at drawing giant sunglasses and devil horns on myself.
But I’ve also developed a different sense of what I’m after in a social media relationship. The answer is not much, apart from a direct channel to the people I want to keep up with, and refuge from the noise of people I don’t. Like many others, I’ve also grown tired of my unpaid curatorial position at the Museum of Me Me Me.
Meanwhile, everything about Snapchat is meant to move along with your life in progress, not attempt to replicate it. There’s no “Wall,” there’s no “Timeline,” there is only a relentless forward vector and a mist of selfie vapors in its wake. Snapchat asks little of you, and offers even less; it cares not who you are, but relies wholly on you being yourself.
For those looking to ghost from Facebook (i.e., those who’d rather feel like users than the used), Snapchat may not seem like the obvious choice; but if you can get over being the oldest person in the room for a few more months, it certainly can be a downright liberating alternative. The biggest challenge facing us late-adopter types isn’t so much switching software as it is dropping our digital baggage and adjusting our mindset: More and more, our social media is about us living in the moment, rather than as a monument.